An outstanding talent: Arthur Dake

by Johannes Fischer
4/8/2020 – The American master Arthur Dake had an extraordinary talent for chess. He learnt the rules of the games when he was 17 but only four years later, at the age of 21, he won gold with the US team at the Chess Olympiad in Prague 1931. Dake was born 110 years ago, on April 8, 1910, and had a remarkable chess career. | Photo: Arthur Dake, standing, second to the left, watches how Alexander Alekhine (left) and Isaac Kashdan play blitz. On Dake's left is José Araiza, on Dake's right are Reuben Fine and Sammy Reshevsky. | Photo source: 1859 Oregon's Magazine

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Arthur Dake: a chess career

Dake's father was from Poland and worked as a shipyard worker in Portland, Dake's mother came from Norway. The family was poor, things were tense. At the age of 16 Dake left his parents' home and joined the merchant marine, which in the following years led him to China, the Soviet Union, the Philippines and other countries.

In the late summer of 1929 he came to New York with nothing more than "a sailor's duffel bag slung over his shoulder, and the determination to meet and beat the great masters of the greatest city on earth," as his friend Arnold Denker put it. (Arnold Denker and Larry Parr, "An American Original", in: A. Denker und L. Parr: The Bobby Fischer I Knew..., Hypermodern Press 1995, p. 221).

In New York he met Kenneth Grover, an excellent checkers player and together with Grover he set up a chess and checkers stand to play against passers-by for small amounts of money.

But the economic depression put an end to their efforts and Dake and Grover tried to make ends meet by organizing private poker rounds. But one day, their poker room was robbed by gangsters, and Dake and Grover decided that this business was too risky.

However, even in times of great economic hardship Dake had always played chess with a passion and after his arrival in New York he quickly became one of the best players in the USA. At a tournament in New York in 1931, for example, he even brought former world champion José Raúl Capablanca, who had lost only 36 games in his entire tournament career, to the brink of defeat.


Games like this and a number of good results at tournaments in the USA secured Dake a place in the national team that won gold at the Chess Olympiad in Prague in 1931. Dake played on board three and scored 8.5/14.

After his return to the USA, Dake continued his life as a chess professional, playing tournaments and giving simultaneous exhibitions. In 1932, at a tournament in Pasadena, he played his most famous game and defeated the reigning world champion Alexander Alekhine.


In 1933, at the Chess Olympiad in Folkestone, Dake won his second gold medal with the US team.  He played on board four and scored 10/13. Dake's third gold medal followed two years later, at the Chess Olympiad in Warsaw 1935, where scored 15.5/18, his best result in the three Olympiads he played.

There was another reason why the Olympiad in Warsaw turned out to important for Dake: on the way back to the USA he met his future wife Helen Girard.

"I met 26-year-old Helen Gerwatowski during the intermission of a shipboard movie. Helen, who was returning to America after visiting her ancestral Poland, simply turned around and smiled at me. That's all. Some six weeks later, after a whirlwind romance, we married on November 14, 1935. And this remarkable person, who was truly my most wonderful chess prize, became my wife for 58 years until her death on April 1, 1994." (The Fischer I Knew, p. 231)

On April 17 1938, Helen's and Arthur's daughter Marjorie was born and Dake was looking for a more regular income to support his family. He only played chess sporadically and worked as a gas station attendant, insurance agent, military policeman and driving examiner. But even though Dake only played chess rarely, he took part in the match USA vs. USSR in Moscow in 1946.

After winning the Oregon Open in 1959 Dake withdrew completely from tournament chess but after his retirement in 1973 he returned to the tournament arena and played in the Lone Pine Open. His last tournament was the 1989 American Open in Los Angeles where he scored 5 points from 9 games.

Arthur Dake died on April 28, 2000 at the age of 90 years in Reno, Nevada.

At his peak Dake was one of the strongest players in the USA but despite his enormous talent he never made it to the very top. One reason for this was his fast and impulsive play. Denker writes:

"Like the young Viswanathan Anand ... Dake and Fischer played entire tournament games in a few minutes. That is the good news about Arthur's play.

The bad news is that this natural genius ... had the attention span of a hummingbird, a common failing in brilliant minds that are untamed by formal intellectual training. Arthur never studied chess in a disciplined fashion, never slowed down long enough to record analyses for future reference (there was always a game going somewhere, and Arthur had to be there!) and never adopted a sane tournament regimen." (The Bobby Fischer I Knew... p. 226)

But that, too, is a sign of Dake's extraordinary talent. This talent was also evident when he played blitz, his strongest discipline. He often won strong blitz tournaments ahead of the best American players. And when Alekhine once visited the Manhattan Chess Club in New York in early 1934, he played a number of blitz games against Dake and once, to Alekhine's great annoyance, even lost six games in a row.

In the following little brilliancy Dake shows his ability to spot hidden tactical possibilities.


Arthur Dake in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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